The role of young people as independent actors in their own right, able to define and become architects of their own future has changed over the years. In our previous two blogs we looked at the evolution of empowering institutions and informal education. In this one we look at what happens when young people act themselves, such as in the school strikes for climate.

Frustrated by the slow pace of adult action on the emergency of climate change Greta Thunberg’s now famous schools strike for climate has spawned a wave of similar actions by young people. Some adults contest that Thunberg has been manipulated into becoming a symbol within a wider climate activism movement. That probably does the impact of seeing other young people in active ‘rebellion’ less credit than it deserves. In an opinion piece by two UK academics in the Guardian newspaper the writers say:

“We risk losing credibility with young people if we cannot take action in support of the defining cause of their generation”

In the USA data shows that by 2018 young people, (ages 18-24) are three times as likely to have attended a demonstration or march than in 2016. Similar increases in the use of e-petition websites by young people have been seen. Social media and the internet has changed how young people engage with democracy. The role of social media, whilst sometimes a concern in the way it amplifies ‘fake news’ and creates echo chambers has undoubtedly replaced more formal spaces for democratic youth engagement.

“Social media especially allows for young people to easily support, promote, and engage in causes of interest”

This quote, from the USA based ‘Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement’, which focuses on democratic youth engagement, shows the global impact of new civic spaces, where young people take part in civic and democratic life.

Even despite Covid19 the 2020 #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations swept across the globe, and looking further back the Arab Spring has been credited as the first globalised demonstration orchestrated on social media, with hackers playing a crucial role in keeping open online connections. In a 2011 report from the University of Washington, during the week before Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation the total rate of tweets from Egypt — and around the world — about political change in that country ballooned from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day.

Whilst direct action doesn’t always lead to positive regime change, what is true is that a representative democratic culture no longer inspires young people. The internet has played a significant role in that, as it means young people become exposed to its ever more diverse messages, and sense their own agency through identifying with role models and influencers. In our final blog we look at more structured (and often more democratic) methods of youth engagement, linking them back to our work on participatory budgeting.